Uncovering the Life and Death of a Mummy

Frontal view of the mummy
Panel A of Figure 1 shows the frontal view of the mummy. Panzer, S. et al. (2014) Reconstructing the Life of an Unknown (ca. 500 Years-Old South American Inca) Mummy – Multidisciplinary Study of a Peruvian Inca Mummy Suggests Severe Chagas Disease and Ritual Homicide. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89528. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089528

Deciphering how an ancient person lived and died is based heavily on the context of the buried body or mummy, including the soil around the gravesite, artifacts present in the grave and if nothing else, the location of the remains. What happens when there is no context? With skeletal remains or even bone fragments, which is primarily what is found at many burial sites, there is some information that can be derived but mummies that include tissue as well as bone offer a greater opportunity to learn about a deceased individual’s life. A recently published PLOS ONE article of a bog body identified using analyses across several scientific fields demonstrates how we can uncover the story of a person who lived several centuries ago based on her mummified remains. Continue reading “Uncovering the Life and Death of a Mummy”

Mummies are a Reservoir of Viral History

Smallpox was a disease caused by infection with one of two strains of Variola virus (Variola major and Variola minor) and a worldwide scourge that killed up 35% of the people it infected. Luckily, a vaccine was developed when Edward Jenner noticed milkmaids infected with cowpox did not contract smallpox. While Jenner was not the first to vaccinate against smallpox, his discovery and testing were spread to a wide audience and thus became the basis for the vaccination efforts that have eradicated the virus in our lifetime. Despite all the research on smallpox, not much is known about the evolution of the virus. Sequence data for the virus only span the last 50–60 years. However, recent efforts published in the New England Journal of Medicine uncovered a new source for examining the history of smallpox infection: mummies.

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Protein Profiling of a Lung Infection in a 500-Year-Old Mummy

Mycobacterium tuberculosis Bacteria, the Cause of TB Scanning electron micrograph of Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, which cause TB. Credit: NIAIDI am fascinated by all the ways that scientists are taking sensitive techniques and using them to look into our past. For example, scientists constructed the entire genome of Yersinia pestis, the caustive agent of the Black Death, from teeth and bone samples of plague victims from the 14th century. Without methods like polymerase chain reaction (PCR), such an analysis could not be performed. My fellow blogger Terri discussed how a postmortem autopsy of Ozti, a mummy found in the Alps, used modern techniques to learn not only what color his eyes were but that he suffered from Lyme disease. In a recent PLOS ONE article, Corthals et al. took this analysis of preserved human remains further to determine if a mummy from the Andes in Argentina may have suffered from an active lung infection, testing for an immune response by protein profiling. Continue reading “Protein Profiling of a Lung Infection in a 500-Year-Old Mummy”

The Daughters of King Tutankhamun

Pharaoh's burial mask
The burial mask of pharaoh Tutankhamun, whose mummy was found buried with his two daughters.

The pharaoh Tutankhamun ruled ancient Egypt during the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom (circa 1550–1295 BC), one of the most powerful royal houses in ancient Egypt. Although he sat on the throne for only 9 years and died at the young age of 19, he is one of the most well known pharaohs, due largely in part to the discovery of his intact tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. The tomb was filled with riches befitting a king, including an elaborate sarcophagus with a gold burial mask and statues of ancient Egyptian gods such as Osiris and Anubis, as well as gold jewelry, statues and images of servants, ornate furniture, models of boats and other items that the pharaoh would need in the afterlife. A lesser known item discovered in his tomb was an undecorated wooden box in which two small gilded coffins lay side by side. These coffins held the mummified remains of King Tutankhamun’s two stillborn daughters. Recently, researchers examined these remains in detail to determine their gestational ages and characterize any congenital abnormalities that they might have inherited from the boy king.

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Autopsy Results of a 5,300-year-old Murder in the Italian Alps

The Italian Alps

A Neolithic man who died a violent death high in the Ötztal Alps has been thawed for the first time in 5,300 years, and his autopsy is revealing new clues as to how he lived and died. The mummified body of the man, nicknamed Ötzi, was first discovered partially embedded in a glacier in September of 1991 by two German hikers, and due to the initial assumption that he was a modern corpse, was hastily extracted from the ice by Austrian authorities and taken to a morgue in Innsbruck. Only then did scientists learn Ötzi’s true age and historical significance as the oldest natural European mummy from the Copper Age.

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